Bret Mersola is a traveling man.
During the last two years, the Saddleback College sophomore and Burroughs High graduate has proven as elusive to universities as he has to defensive backs.
He did, however, stay at the Mission Viejo school long enough to establish a national season community college reception record.
Mersola, who made a school-record 12 receptions in the Gauchos’ season-ending victory over Rancho Santiago last month, caught 91 passes in 1986 to break the national record of 84 set in 1985 by Diablo Valley’s Tom Schulting. In two seasons, he caught 138 passes in regular-season games to tie the career record established by Dave Oliver of Grossmont in 1973-74.
After the season, the awards poured in: JC Grid-Wire All-American, all-state, All-Mission Conference, Orange County Player of the Year, Saddleback Player of the Year.
But that’s just the where-have-you-been-lately on Mersola, who has had fewer roots than a nomad during the past two years.
Mersola, 21, graduated in 1984 from Burroughs, where in 1983 he was The Times’ All-Glendale/Burbank area Back of the Year as a running back. He went to the University of Colorado, only to find the Buffaloes had changed to a wishbone offense.
“It didn’t look like the offense or the school for me,” he said.
After leaving Colorado, Mersola transferred to Saddleback to play for Coach Ken Swearingen, who had been the head coach at El Camino College when Mersola’s father, Carl, was an assistant coach at the school from 1962 to 1975. Carl Mersola no longer coaches, but still teaches at El Camino.
The 5-9, 165-pound Mersola started the 1985 season at Saddleback as a running back but switched to wide receiver after five games. That was a minor maneuver compared to the switch he made last summer.
Early in the summer, Mersola was contacted by the University of Florida, and went to the Gainesville campus to look it over.
“Florida lost a receiver and was looking for one who was eligible this year,” Mersola said. “I went to visit and two weeks later I was moving there. But they were rotating guys and I just decided that I would not get enough playing time to improve.
“Plus, I knew I had another year at Saddleback.”
Mersola didn’t officially enroll at Florida and returned to Saddleback in late August with only a blue-and-orange Gator hat as evidence of his month’s absence.
Upon returning, Mersola wanted to work on refining his skills.
He had struggled as a freshman making the transition to receiver. He didn’t know how to run pass routes, but as the season progressed, he improved.
By the end of the 1985 season, he had become an important part of the Gauchos’ offense and led the team in receptions with 52.
“He was catching plenty of passes for us as a running back,” Swearingen said. “It’s his natural postion if he wants to continue to play football. So the change wasn’t that severe for him.”
When Saddleback defeated Fullerton, 32-13, in the PONY Bowl to win a co-national championship with Snow College of Ephraim, Utah, Mersola had five catches for 78 yards. He was named offensive player of the game.
This year, Mersola settled in as a receiver and confused defenses from the beginning of the season. Twice, he tied the school record with 11 receptions in a game--first against Grossmont, then against San Diego Mesa--and then he broke it with 12 catches against Rancho Santiago. He also tied a school record with three touchdown catches in a game against Southwestern.
His career totals included 20 touchdowns and 143 receptions for 1,829 yards.
“He just gets open,” quarterback Pat Hegarty said. “Last year he didn’t always, but he was new to the position.”
In 1986, though, Mersola was open almost every time Hegarty looked up.
“He just has really great hands,” Swearingen said. “That and his speed are his best skills. His hands are really soft and that helps because Pat throws a hard ball that’s difficult to catch at times.”
Now, Mersola is about to be on the move again. Only this time, he’s not sure where he’s going.
Under NCAA rules, he’s obligated to Florida if he transfers this spring. But if he stays at Saddleback another semester and completes 24 units of class work this school year, he can go anywhere next fall, and several schools have expressed interest, including Rutgers, Stanford, Nevada Las Vegas and Texas El Paso.
Mersola has narrowed his choices to two: Florida or Rutgers.
But as of Wednesday, he said, “I’m keeping my options open and haven’t made up my mind yet.”